Mexico’s Showdown with Democracy

By Kent Paterson

On the same day ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya unsuccessfully attempted a return to Tegucigalpa, a country to the north faced its own test of democracy. An estimated 77.8 million Mexicans were eligible July 5 to vote for the lower house of a new federal Congress as well as state and local governments in 10 states and Mexico City. More than half of eligible voters, or 61%, sat out the contest or spoiled their ballots. Some even found write-in candidates like Fidel, a happy-looking pit bull from Guadalajara, more appealing than the human contenders from the 8 political parties that competed in the national race.

“None of them convinced me of the proposals they made,” said Miriam Rodriguez, a Puerto Vallarta sales clerk who intentionally spoiled her ballot. “Politics is very bad here in Mexico.”

Many Mexicans like Rodriguez view the political class as hopelessly divorced from reality. Abstaining from voting or mutilating ballots is not new here, but what distinguished the 2009 election from past ones was the emergence of an organized protest movement aimed at all the political parties. Prominent intellectuals including Denise Dresser and Sergio Aguayo gave voice to the movement.

While mainstream media commentators later dismissed the 5.6% combined tally of annulled votes and write-in candidates, the protest vote stole the show. The anti-party movement “gained bigger interest in the debates and more presence than the candidates themselves,” said Fernando Rivera, a political columnist for the Aguascalientes edition of the daily newspaper La Jornada. Rivera is a former spokesman for the center-left PRD party and an ex-citizen representative of the Federal Electoral Institute.

In some places, annulled votes were greater than the number of ballots cast for smaller political parties. In the left-leaning capital of Mexico City, annulled votes made up 10.2% of the total cast, while in historically conservative Aguascalientes, annulled ballots amounted to 8.3% of the total, according to Rivera; some precincts in Aguascalientes registered annulled votes in the 13% range.

The elections were viewed as a critical, mid-term referendum on the presidency of Felipe Calderon and, especially, on the drug war that is the centerpiece of the federal administration. The results were disastrous for the president and his conservative PAN Party, whose president, German Martinez, quickly resigned in disgrace.

Allied with the Mexican Green Party (PVEM) the former ruling PRI party won an absolute majority in the lower house of Congress that takes office on Sept. 1. If it holds, the PRI-PVEM alliance will give the parties virtual control over the federal budget during the next three years. In a nation where control of spending and financing of social programs carries an electoral stamp, the PRI is well-positioned to retake the presidency in 2012.

Although the party bills itself as a new political force purged of the sins of the past, many veteran PRI operators or their children will assume office as legislators on Sept. 1.

According to analyst Fernando Rivera, the demographic of the new electorate favors the PRI. New voters, Rivera said, are too young to remember first-hand the PRI’S involvement in numerous scandals and the economic disasters of 1982 and 1995. “Young people who vote don’t know this history,” Rivera contended.

Understandably, many young voters pin the blame for the country’s current troubles on the PAN, which has held the presidency since 2000, he added.

The PAN’s debacle in the congressional race was repeated in state and local ones as well. In addition to losing control of municipal strongholds in Guadalajara and Cuernavaca, the PAN lost 5 of 6 key governors’ races. The sole exception was in Sonora, where a June fire at a privatized daycare center killed 48 children. Voters apparently blamed the catastrophe on the administration of PRI Gov. Eduardo Bours. Once regarded as a possible 2012 presidential candidate, Bours’ own political career likely went up in flames on July 5.

The elections were a calamity for the electoral left. Sharply divided between a centrist leadership and followers of 2006 presidential candidate and opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the PRD lost scores of congressional seats and local governments in the strategic state of Mexico outside the capital city.

Old vices long associated with Mexican politics were widely if only thinly reported, including vote-buying, violence and narco-infiltration of the political process. A new political spying scandal involving former members of CISEN, Mexico’s equivalent of the CIA, revealed that offspring of the authoritarian dinosaur which long ruled Mexico are now on the scene.

Protest vote advocates, meanwhile, plan to demand reforms of the country’s political system. Sure to be controversial, the measures include allowing for the reelection and recall of office holders, limiting the number of political parties, reducing the size of Congress, recognizing citizen referenda, and permitting independent candidacies.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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